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The ‘Big Dip’ – how to lead through the ongoing Covid crisis

Sarah Lloyd-Hughes

The problem

As we step into 2021, many of us are facing a perfect storm of personal, company-level, economic, political and social crisis.

In conversation with a roundtable of senior business leaders late last year, the group expressed their concern that things will get worse before they get better. 

Even the strongest performing teams are, they said, staring down the barrel of The Big Dip – the potential for individuals, teams and society to suffer a major drop in motivation and performance in the coming months.

First time around, lockdown felt like a valiant effort – it was just for a few weeks, the emergency response heroics kicked in… and it was beautiful weather. This time, many of us are finding everything harder.

Leaders under pressure

Leaders are expected to respond quickly to rapidly changing work conditions, with limited training on how to do so.

The role of the leader has become vast: how do you pivot strategy, cut costs and ride out volatility in the marketplace, whilst at the same time giving your people what they need?

On top of that, leaders don’t have the usual tools like face-to-face meetings, or those crucial ‘water-cooler moments’ at their disposal to check in on and re-energise teams.

Invisible struggles

When we’re not seeing each other in the flesh, we may not even notice a problem before it’s too late. Those human interactions are critical for spotting the body language and other cues of :

  • the team member who’s struggling with anxiety
  • the parent who’s overwhelmed by their work and family commitments
  • the leader who’s at bursting point trying to help
  • the team member who’s confused into inaction on a project
  • the colleague whose opinion is silently going unnoticed
  • the team where performance has dipped

So how do we spot the issues?

By nature, it’s difficult to spot these things in a virtual set up. But there are some behaviours which can signal a deeper issue that needs exploring. 

Have you noticed any of these?

  • ‘Presenteeism’ in large meetings: people logging in but not participating. Are they half listening, whilst multitasking?
  • Crazy work hours: colleagues who send emails at 6am or 10pm…?
  • Back-to-back online meeting schedules without food or oxygen breaks
  • Reduction in team powers of collaboration – perhaps your usual team creativity is difficult to replicate online?
  • The ‘office Christmas party’ where everyone was online, but nobody wanted to be there. One contact told us that his office festive gathering was one of the most depressing experiences of his professional life… everyone was checking their emails.

It’s worth considering what loss of team motivation looks like from your point of view. 

How leaders can combat the Big Dip

In the initial phases of the Covid outbreak, leaders had to adapt quickly to their team’s most urgent needs. Big and sudden operational changes came into force with little time for collaboration or nuance. Decisive, direct leadership was often needed.

As we move forward with ongoing uncertainty, the need for a new kind of leadership is emerging: where empathy and authenticity are key, where leaders spot the differences between people’s experiences and tailor their approaches to the needs of individuals. 

That’s what underpins Ginger’s mantra of inspiring human brilliance and it’s the kind of leadership we need to develop for the ‘next normal’. 

As the ‘Big Dip’ hits, there are a number of things leaders can do to help to support, uplift and inspire their teams:

1. Invest time in articulating the ‘why’ behind your business activities. A clear understanding and sense of purpose help unite people towards a common goal,  even when everything else is unclear. Even if you think your team knows the ‘why’, you can’t remind them of it too many times.

2. Create time and space for individuals. Understand what they’re dealing with, what they enjoy and what motivates them. Explore how they fit into the wider business purpose and how they can contribute.

“Research shows that we are most energized and committed when we are internally motivated by our own values, sense of enjoyment, and growth — in short, internal motivation, not external structure, inspires us to be our best selves.” (Harvard Business Review)

3. Model healthy leadership habits. Talk about what you’re doing to manage your own challenges. Take time out for yourself – and talk about it. Switch off your emails – and talk about it. Seek help for your emotional blips – and talk about it. You talking about your challenges makes space for others to do the same.

4. Encourage self-leadership, self-responsibility and the importance of self-awareness, sense of purpose, values, impact and choice.

5. Invest in facilitation skills to bring virtual meetings to life. It’s much easier to disengage from virtual meetings than their face-to-face equivalents, so we need different skills to make them work effectively. 

6. Use external inspiration to re-energise the team. You might need a new perspective to rebuild team cohesion, develop the confidence of team members to speak up, or a springboard to spark innovation.

The way we see it at Ginger is that motivation can’t happen without clear and authentic communication between leaders, teams and individuals. And, fundamentally, we see leadership as a state of being rather than a pay grade. It’s why our work focuses on transformational leadership, from self-awareness right through to the capacity to inspire positive change. 

Motivational videos and ‘enforced fun’ encounters won’t cut it. If we want to build and support a resilient, engaged and high-performing workforce, we have to equip leaders at all levels with the communication skills to make it happen. 

Throughout the Covid crisis, we’re working with teams and leaders to build their resilience and team cohesion, in service of inspiring the human brilliance that will lead our companies and society out of these turbulent times.

If you’d like to know more about our offering, from Bitesize virtual training to in-depth leadership journeys, please drop us an email – we’re here to help.

Main photo by Stas Knop from Pexels

Sarah Lloyd-Hughes

The UK’s leading inspiring speaking expert & best-selling author. Sarah Lloyd-Hughes is a multiple-award winning public speaking coach, founder of Ginger and author of “How to be Brilliant at Public Speaking” (Pearson).

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